Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Questions (61)

Margaret Murphy O'Mahony


61. Deputy Margaret Murphy O'Mahony asked the Minister for Education and Skills if the recommendations of the recent review by the National Council for Special Education of the special needs assistant scheme will be implemented; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29325/18]

View answer

Oral answers (13 contributions) (Question to Education)

Go raibh maith agat. I will start by saying what a fantastic job the Acting Chairman is doing. Perhaps he is one to watch for the future. I will share my time with my colleague, Deputy Michael Moynihan.

It is still the same amount of time.

Can I have five minutes extra? Will the recommendations of the recent review by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, on the special needs assistant, SNA, scheme be implemented? Will the Minister make a statement on this matter, please?

I welcome this question because it is a good report. It is a comprehensive review of the SNA scheme and the Government has noted the contents of the report. In response to the report, I have undertaken to develop proposals for the implementation of the recommendations and to return to Government, following engagement with the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Health, with a proposed implementation plan to include a governance and accountability framework and detailed costings of proposals.

Work has commenced on a comprehensive mapping exercise to set out current levels, ranges and costs of all relevant existing supports available from both an education and a health perspective. In addition, work is under way to assess the costs associated with the implementation of any recommendations that subsequently may be approved by Government.

Work is also under way on the development of a new model for the allocation of resources to schools, as recommended by the NCSE. It is considered likely that the introduction of such a new model will need to be piloted in selected schools in order that the impact and effectiveness of the new model can be evaluated and understood before such a model is rolled out nationally. I expect to bring proposals for implementation of the review's recommendations to the Government in the coming months.

Last week during a debate on special needs assistants, my good colleague, Deputy Thomas Byrne, highlighted how some parts of the report are deemed urgent by the NCSE. One of these concerns complex medical needs. The report states the NCSE wrote to the Minister in early 2017 highlighting a major crisis regarding complex medical needs and noting that nursing support should be provided to schools, SNAs and teachers to address these needs. The report is blunt on this point, stating that if action is not taken, there will be a crisis in schools. The issue needs to be addressed immediately. The report notes the Minister responded by establishing a working group, but here we are, about a year and a half after the NCSE warned of the crisis in schools if nursing support was not provided, and the Minister still has not made any announcement on the provision of nursing support in schools. When exactly can we expect this?

Special needs assistant, SNA, allocations for September have been made in the past couple of weeks. In some instances, where there have been three SNAs in a school, a small amount of time has been added to the SNA allocation. It is divided between the SNAs, giving the impression that four are working in the school, but a minuscule amount of time has been added to the overall allocation. Has there been an attempt by the Department to give the impression that more SNAs are working in schools when the hours added equate to 0.2 of a working unit? There seems to be an attempt to give the impression that there are more SNAs, but the amount of time involved is minuscule.

Deputy Margaret Murphy O'Mahony raised a point that I mentioned last week and which was made in written questions yesterday. It relates to nursing. The written reply concerned the concerns of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, about nursing support in schools. It is very worrying that the Minister does not seem to be acting on it. A report has been compiled, but it has not been published. The Minister has said he is looking at what can be done. It is not a costly or expensive option, but, as Deputy Margaret Murphy O'Mahony said today, as I said last week and as the NCSE indicated a year and a half ago, there will be a medical crisis in schools if there is no nursing support for SNAs. I urge the Minister to show more urgency in providing nursing support for students with complex medical needs.

I welcome the interest in the report. There is the question of complex medical needs that is clearly highlighted in the report. The NCSE calls for a new approach that would involve ring-fencing nursing support in order that it would be part of a new approach to supporting schools and involve a range of therapies. As of today, nursing support provision is the responsibility of the Department of Health, not the Department of Education and Skills. The provision of nursing support for the schools will be through the Department of Health. What is at stake is the delivery of a new model. The Deputy is right in saying we sat down, in the light of the NCSE's concerns, and work is ongoing between my Department and the Department of Health to improve such support. There are 1,090 full-time equivalent SNAs being allocated; 800 were allocated recently and more will be allocated at the start of the coming year, in January. There has been no change in the way SNAs are allocated. They are allocated on the basis of the profiled need within a school. Every child who needs an SNA has one provided under this process. The NCSE independently decides on the level of need.

I am very reluctant to cut across Members on such an important matter. Although we are way over time, I will allow quick final questions from the Deputies and a reply from the Minister.

I am worth it. The report also mentions the renaming of SNAs as "inclusion support assistants". Will that recommendation be implemented? The term SNA is very well known at this stage and I wonder if it is necessary to change the title. Irrespective of that happening, how will the Minister ensure SNAs will only do the job they are meant to do? The NCSE's report gives a number of examples of other roles they are carrying out, including teaching, which they are not qualified to do. This happens, despite circulars indicating that SNAs are there to assist teachers in meeting the care needs of students and that they do not have a teaching role. They are also asked to do other things that are not included in their job description.

Will the Minister have look at the case I raised if I give him the details?

Yes, of course. The NCSE has recommended use of the term "inclusion support assistants" to move away from the idea of special need and in order to emphasise student independence. It is about allowing pupils to be included, gain their independence and develop. It is seen to be more appropriate as a pupil gets older and the concept of special needs assistant is less attuned with a growing adolescent.

I acknowledge the interesting research included in the NCSE;s report that demonstrates where SNAs are involved in teaching, it damages a child's progress. It is right that we be clear on what an SNA does. A national training programme for SNAs is envisaged to enhance the role and quality of service they can deliver.

As I am endeavouring to get in three more questions, I suggest Deputies forgo the introductions.